Shariah: God’s Sacred Law or Medieval Obscurantism Codified?
There are two things virtually all Islamic financial institutions and affiliated organizations have in common: their insistence that the industry must adhere strictly to the tenets of shariah law and their conspicuous failure to explain to their customers what shariah law actually calls for, apart from its prohibition of interest and obligation to alms giving.4 This is not a coincidence but a deliberate policy by the practitioners of Islamic finance for the simple reason that revealing the philosophy and detailed prescriptions of the obscurantist medieval doctrine called shariah to potential investors and the wider audience beyond would almost certainly cause a backlash against the whole concept of Islamic finance and put its very legitimacy in question. This is potentially a huge problem for Western institutions offering Islamic financing because their failure to disclose what shariah really advocates borders on willful if not fraudulent misrepresentation.
The more so, because Islamic finance without a doubt is part of a broader effort to legitimize shariah as the cornerstone of the ideology of militant Islamism. Far from being concerned primarily with the Islamic legality of interest and or almsgiving, Islamic finance embraces and promotes shariah as an instrument of Islamization. Even a cursory acquaintance with some of the objectives of Islamic banking as alluded to by various Islamic scholars makes this abundantly clear as in the couple of examples below:
“First and foremost, an Islamic organization must serve God. It must develop a distinctive corporate culture, the main purpose of which is to create a collective morality and spirituality which, when combined with the production of goods and services, sustains the growth and advancement of the Islamic way of life.”5
“Islamic banks have a major responsibility to shoulder …. All the staff of such banks and customers dealing with them must be reformed Islamically and act within the framework of an Islamic formula, so that any person approaching of an Islamic bank should be given the impression that he is entering a sacred place to perform a religious ritual…”6
Muslims who truly believe in their religion have a duty to prove, through their efforts in backing and supporting Islamic banks and financial institutions, that the Islamic economic system is an integral part of Islam and is indeed for all times…”7
Given its centrality in Islamic finance, any effort to understand it must first come to terms with shariah and what exactly it prescribes. Islamic discourse of shariah is more often than not unequivocal and limited to the acknowledgment that it is simply God-ordained sacred Islamic law that rules each and every aspect of a Muslim’s life. It is immutable, not subject to any change or interpretation and valid for all times and places. Since the rise of radical Islamism in the past few decades, shariah has gained even more on importance and is now widely promoted by Islamist ideologues as the spiritual, socio-political and economic panacea for all ills, real or imagined, afflicting the Muslim community.
The reality of shariah is quite different. Far from being God-ordained and sacred, shariah is mostly a post-Quranic, man-made medieval doctrine that is almost completely at odds with modern norms of human rights, political freedoms and international relations. Moreover, it has been of little use to Muslims as a code of jurisprudence historically and is much less so in today’s world.
A detailed shariah exegesis is beyond the scope of this paper, but a few of the key characteristics of the “sacred” Islamic law must be pointed out nonetheless. To begin with, the word shariah is mentioned only once in the Quran, and not at all as a system of jurisprudence, but in its traditional meaning of the “right path.”8 There are some 80 verses (out of 6000) in the Quran that could be interpreted as providing legal prescriptions and virtually all of them deal with family law, inheritance, or punishments for criminal behavior. Thus, even in terms of the strict Islamic interpretation of the Quran as the revealed word of God, there is no doubt that, as one Islamic scholar has put it, “there exists no homogeneous, defined, and delimited legal body that we can call sharia.” 9 What does exist is a post-Quranic, mostly man-made compilation of behavior prescriptions put together by Islamic scholars on the basis of Quranic dicta, the traditions and ostensible sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Sunna and Hadith), as well as consensus of the jurists (ijma) and analogical reasoning (qiyas).